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Personal Growth

Get Over Yourself: How Your Ego Sabotages Your Creativity

An inflated ego can surface in the most subtle ways. Know the difference between confidence and arrogance so you can do your best creative work.


One of the most destructive of creative sins is an over-inflated ego. When many people hear the word “ego,” they immediately think of the know-it-all manager charging into the room and insisting that everyone bend their life and work around his every whim. This is certainly one exhibition of ego, but there are less obvious types that we must be careful to avoid if we want to do our best creative work consistently. 

Brilliant creative work requires a willingness to take risks, to experiment, and to venture into unproven territory in the pursuit of great ideas. When an inflated ego becomes the norm, you may become inflexible and unwilling to take the small personal risks necessary to break out of your comfort zone and pour yourself fully into your work. Others hover close to their safety zone, because they’d rather live with the perception of invulnerability than to take a risk and find that they have limits. This is obviously a recipe for underperformance, so be aware of these hidden ego-fueled dangers that can come with creative work:

Ego Trap #1: Playing the victim

I recall several instances as a child when playing a game with others that there was a disagreement over the rules. When the argument got heated, the disagreeable party would inevitably say something like “Fine! Then I’m taking my ball and going home!” They would rather opt-out of the game than be flexible enough to find a compromise and continue playing.  

While very few people would actually be so obvious about their protest in a work context, the results can be comparable. It plays out in a much more subtle, behind-the-scenes kind of way. When we’re playing the victim, our internal dialogue goes something like “if they won’t listen to my ideas, then I’m just not going to offer them any more” or “there’s no use in trying very hard on this project, because my efforts won’t be valued anyway.” At first, this may not seem like a form of ego, but it is. You are putting your own need for recognition ahead of the work and ahead of the mission of your team.  

Unfortunately, this kind of disengagement means that you are not putting yourself fully into the work in front of you, and thus are abdicating your contribution. You are allowing someone else to control your efforts rather than taking charge of your own engagement. You must stay alert to the “victim” voice inside your head and not allow it to cause you to withhold your best work.

Ego Trap #2: Aggressive defense of your “turf”

When you sense that someone else is encroaching on something you perceive as your area of influence, you feel a need to protect your standing or authority and refuse to allow others to become the leading voice. You may even take credit for the ideas of others, or refuse to allow them to stand in the spotlight. This can also play out as snark, cynicism, or extreme criticism of the work of others. You immediately call out things as “too obvious” or “amateurish” in the effort to make your own work look more valuable.  

There is a vast chasm between confidence in your abilities, and an over-inflated ego. Ego says “I can do no wrong”, whereas confidence says “I can get this right.” Confidence says “I’m valuable” while ego says “I’m invaluable.” This is a critical difference in mindset. Be aware when you are generally contributing and when you are simply trying to protect the status quo. Losing some of your “turf” may seem scary, but it’s really an opportunity to stay one step ahead.

Confidence says “I’m valuable” while ego says “I’m invaluable.”

Ego Trap #3: Being easily offended

Have you ever met “that person” who perceives everything as a personal attack? It doesn’t matter what you say to them or how nicely you say it, they will somehow twist it into an insult. Similarly, some people treat any disagreement as an indication that you are questioning their competence. Both of these are a subtle displays of inflated ego. 

When you put your self-perception ahead of the work, you are in danger of compromising your best efforts. Collaboration also becomes more challenging, because others grow tired of walking on eggshells. You must nix the tendency to be easily offended, and instead embrace the opportunity that disagreements or disconfirming information provide to sharpen your thoughts and skills.  

For sure, there is a right and a wrong way to deliver criticism. The correct response to poorly delivered criticism isn’t to get offended, it’s to offer a helpful suggestion on how you’d like to receive feedback in the future. 

***

Do not allow the subtle effects of an inflated ego to rob you of your contribution. Yes, be confident, but also be adaptable. Pour yourself fully into your work, but be willing to listen to disconfirming information and opinions. If you do, you will be far better positioned to unleash your best creative work every day.

More Posts by Todd Henry

Todd Henry is the author of the new book Louder Than Words: Harness The Power Of Your Authentic Voice. Learn more at toddhenry.com, or follow him on Twitter at @toddhenry.

Comments (137)
  • http://www.callboxinc.com/ Belinda Summers

    As someone in the position, sometimes we’re not aware that we were already doing things the wrong way. This is quite a realization and a wakening call for the leaders. It’s really important that we are open – minded for the suggestions and as leaders we should initiate and motivate our members, not degrade them. 🙂

  • Dave Irwin

    Thanks Todd.

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  • Sara Loeb

    Great Article!

  • The CCS

    Painfully Enlightening.

  • http://www.creativityworkshop.com/ Tama Lancaster

    Great post, Todd. When you’re in a team of strong-willed and assertive people, you really have to work to avoid falling into the first ego trap. Getting one’s voice and ideas across becomes almost like running a marathon!

  • Robert

    Well, it’s good, I’ve started to controll my Ego Trap 1, almost on Ego Trap 2 and 3.

  • Nayla

    There’s a lot of insight in your article, which extends to areas of life (especially relationships) beyond the creative industry. However, it is important to realize that the “ego” is a cover-up mechanism used to hide insecurities that people develop whilst growing up. Some of your advice is much easier said than done; the ego will only disappear once these insecurities have been properly addressed. It is much easier to respond well to poorly delivered criticism, for example, when a person is resilient on the inside. At any rate, thanks for encouraging assertive behaviour!

    • Adrian Hart

      Nayla, your comment is exactly right. These behaviours are acts of insecurity and a lot of the advice given is not achievable when you are in a position of feeling vulnerable and insecure.

  • http://www.konraddobson.com/ Konrad Dobson

    Some very good points here. I notice I’m guilty of a couple of these myself. Always helps to read it and suddenly realize you’ve got stuff to work on. It’ll only help you in life after all. Thanks! Good article.

  • Linda Smith

    Thanks for clarifying some of the issues I encounter in a work day.

  • jwmada

    It’s simple: ‘When you think you are good – creatively, you are dead!’

    • isaacpvl

      Oh dear. Do you honestly think the greatest creatives in the world don’t realize that they’re exceptional? Knowing you’re good and working hard to continuously prove it to yourself builds confidence, and empowers you to take creative risks and explore routes previously not considered due to self-doubt.

      Knowing you’re good will make you the kind of creative who is willing to go for it and try something different instead of sticking to more safe/proven routes. When you think you are good, you can set trends. When you don’t, feel free to follow them.

  • houseofcakes

    Yes, nailed it. I am guilty of all of these and I think one thing the article fails to address is that while ego comes from the individual, certain environments and situations can trigger the ego. The goal is to be able to figure out a way to keep that from happening (being triggered). It’s too simplistic to say “being defensive…yeah, don’t do that.” Yeah, if it were that easy, we wouldn’t be such egoists! It’s natural to have an ego, it is somewhat essential. When the ego gets in the way, even more than affecting my creativity, it just makes me feel horrible. It’s simplistic to say “focus on your work.” In some situations, that’s not going to “fix” it. Certain environments breed this behavior–environments where members of the group don’t acknowledge one another’s skills and strengths, where employees don’t feel appreciated, etc. I have been asking myself “why do I behave this way?” There’s no incentive to change when the ego is present b/c it’s about self-preservation at that point. So, recognizing it is one thing. Being able to catch myself and move past it is the everyday work.

    • Chris Raymond

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head for a very important point. I know I do a lot of these things but I also know a specific organizational culture and structure can trigger that type of behavior that may not be “who you are” in other settings.

  • Laura Pieri

    You described it elegantly no mistake or misunderstandings at all….I like my Spirit as my
    guide.

  • Lionel Vera

    Nice read. There’s never a bad time for an “ego” check!

  • Morgan Rockhill

    Given the fragility of artistic egos and in consideration of just how easy it is to tear something down; in my studio we had a rule that asked you to first state what it was that you liked about a thing before you opined on what was wrong with it. This proved to be very constructive.

  • Nate

    Wonderful read! I am or have been guilty of every one of these at some point. An ego check at the door is ALWAYS necessary!

  • Sean

    This article is stupid. 😉

    • http://www.accidentalcreative.com Todd Henry

      This is the part where my ego takes over and I jump in to defend my turf, no? 😉

      • Jolly

        No this is the part where experienced creatives say ‘Huzzah! Todd Henry!’ This is an article that needed to be written for both creatives and their clients. Both members of the team need to focus on the work, not our egos.

  • Romain

    Do Karl Lagarfeld, Marc Jacobs, Starck, Zaha hadid and most designers who have relatively high ego of themselves sabottage their creativity ?

    • Oliver King

      Interesting, they probably don’t have an huge ego, or at least they don’t take their ego to work. I think that you can be characterful and have personality in your life but you need to know when leave this at home and be OBJECTIVE. I think that’s the key. And i’m sure if you disagreed with one of their ideas, they wouldn’t take it personally, i’m sure they would have an educated conversation why they think you’re wrong!

    • http://www.accidentalcreative.com Todd Henry

      Who knows? No one can speak for individuals and their specific circumstances. However, I can’t recall seeing inflexibility and an unwillingness to consider contrary opinions, accompanied by an aggressive and defensive posture, as a path to sustained contribution. (Or at the very least it’s a miserable life.)

    • Antonin

      ….surely they must continuosly keep balancing both..

  • Kiki Johnson

    Just what I needed to hear this morning. Thanks for the good read.

  • Vanessa Z

    I am starting up a program and have a lot of responsibility. I can see how ego can definitely get in the way. It’s our personal baggage that we have to be careful of.
    I really appreciated this and will share and refer to it in the future.

  • isaacpvl

    You’re bending the meaning of what ego is, these are all effects of insecurity, ego isn’t the proper term for it. A lot of times insecure people will externalize a fake, fragile ego, which seems to be what you’re pointing out here, but that’s just a cover up.

    I consider myself to have an ego, but it’s partially BASED on how my honest, hard work ethic keeps me from ever even feeling the urge to fall into these behaviors.

    • Cayla Buettner

      He is not bending the meaning of ego. Ego responds to insecurity and creates a defense barrier for our perceptions. We all have an ego. Through quieting the mind, we are able to understand how and why we react in specific patterns with specific thoughts. The author is pointing out specific thought and reaction patterns that people have, and pointing towards the source of it. These are defense mechanisms set up by the ego that will stop creativity dead in its tracks.
      I think what’s fascinating about creativity is that it comes from a source within us that is not affected by our defenses.

  • dantewaters

    Great article we all need to be reminded of this!

  • Paul Guba

    EGO= Eliminating Great Opportunities

  • mmcmahondesign

    This is a very precise article. Many times , as stated we are unaware of these behaviors in many areas in our lives not the least in the creative realm.

  • Antonin

    ..exactly and overdue… this should be part of internal contract, sort of ‘Terms of Service’ before one opens mouth 🙂

  • Martin Roux

    When the ego is threatened, higher functions of the brain (like creativity) are inhibited. Your article will help me to identify when my ego is taking over and putting me into trouble. Meditation has also helped me diminish the influence of ego on my work and on my relationships. Thanks for a great article !

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